Country music just ain’t what it used t’be. This may be news if your formative experiences of music were primarily borne in white-hot forge of the last decade of the 20th Century. You’d probably be amazed to known that asking your mates to ‘come round and listen to a bit of country’ used to be about as welcome as getting a public smakerooney from Richard Gere.
Yet in today’s increasingly unreliable pop world, country influences fleck the popular soundscape like drool from a rabid dog. Pedal steel guitars litter studios like discarded personal computers, beards as fashion statements are �back’, and saying that ‘there’s always been a Kenny Rodgers element to our music’ no longer gets you bottom-of-the-bill at the Camden Carrot. Human memory was never so fickle as when it’s been required to come up with post-hoc justifications for rhinestone jackets.
So, while we’ve established that sufficient post-modern distance makes fools out of us all, it’s extremely pleasing to listen to Death Vessel’s first album and be able to give it a genuine thumbs-up. Death Vessel are primarily Joel Thibodeau, but for his first album he’s managed to recruit a dirty half-dozen (+/- 2) players to flesh out his strangely out-of-time compositions. So far, so freak-folk collective. But Death Vessel are something of an anomaly in these times of Charles Manson clones gurning into four-tracks.
The first thing that strikes you on listening to Mean Streak, the first track on Stay Close, is how pleasingly warm the production is. The second thing that’ll strike you and have you scrabbling for the liner notes is Joel’s voice. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather feminine. By this, I mean feminine ‘like it was a girl singing’ as opposed to ‘gosh isn’t that a rather androgynous voice!’. Thibodeau’s singing voice is truly astonishing – near-soprano in its range and in the gender that it conveys. Its clear, pure tonality often reminds me of Mimi Parker from Low, particularly on the sparse first half of Nothing Left To Bury
Thibodeau’s voice would of course be merely an entertaining aside if Death Vessel’s music didn’t cut the mustard. Across the ten tracks of Stay Close (9 originals, and one cover of Townes Vam Zandt‘s Snow Don’t Fall) Death Vessel’s music is an always captivating mixture of folk, country, and the occasional rocky touch, which manages to stay this side of unusual while never crossing over into the kind of music we’ve come to expect from, for example, the kinds of artists you might find on Paw Tracks.
Apart from that voice, there are few gimmicks on this record, the strengths of the songs managing to hold everything together. It is the kind of record that sounds rather ordinary on its first play through, but a keen ear will detect the surface details struggling to escape the rather over-polite production. Good, then, but it’ll take Death Vessel’s next full length to determine if they’re going to be remembered as Men in Black and not mere Islands in the Stream